Photo of Cassandra Jenkins courtesy of cassandrajenkins.com.
How is it this time of year again already? It feels as if I just turned in my 2020 best ofs. My standard disclaimer applies: art doesn’t want you to rank it, grade it, categorize it, or slap a number of stars on it. It’s impossible to objectively declare the best albums of any year. But these are the albums that I played the most in 2021. The albums that made me smile when I needed a smile, that got me through loss and tough times, and that served as a steadying influence, a life raft in a time in history when every day requires you to take it as it comes, and find new ways of getting by.
The Top 10:
Cassandra Jenkins I An Overview on Phenomenal Nature (Ba Da Bing)
Arriving five years after her debut album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature doesn’t herald its arrival. Instead it phases in, like tuning a radio through endless static, until finally landing on a station with a clear signal. Jenkins’ impressionistic set of folk songs incorporate chamber pop, free jazz, and art rock, and feature outstanding lyrics and memorable vocals and phrasing.
Album opener “Michelangelo” suggests a state of limbo; the quiet organ intro eventually gives way to confident drums and fuzzed out guitar. The shift also suggests learning to accept and embrace limitations.
“I’m a three-legged dog
Workin’ with what I got
And part of me will always be
Looking for what I lost”
Meanwhile, “New Bikini” floats in on a cloud of vintage Moog synthesizer and gently plucked acoustic guitar, sketching vignettes about the tension between good intentions and navigating real loss. The record’s standout track “Hard Drive” combines spoken word, sax, and chiming guitars, sounding like a series of conversations with strangers while out on a walk. It compares the mind to a storage device, and life to a difficult journey. Both being the titular “Hard Drive.” Sure, it’s clever, but it’s also, and most importantly, devastatingly honest and truthful. It’s a beautiful song that embodies Jenkins’ skill as a songwriter, and illustrates the album’s unconventional beauty.
Japanese Breakfast | Jubilee (Dead Oceans)
On her first two albums as Japanese Breakfast, Michele Zauner quietly honed her songwriting craft, mixing adventurous and sometimes unorthodox arrangements with immediate melodies and alluringly oblique lyrics. Jubilee builds on that approach, while pulling off the difficult feat of being both more accessible and more adventurous. The album is informed by the grief of losing her mother to cancer—but instead of the grief being fresh, she processes and funnels the aftermath of the immediate loss into crafting a set of songs that explores magical realism, power, her toxic relationship with her father, and the many expressions of love. It’s all done with an intoxicating sonic palette. The marching band grandeur of opener “Paprika” gives way to the effortless synth-streaked indie pop of “Be Sweet” (co-written with Wild Nothing’s Jack Tatum). “Slide Tackle” builds a little side-shuffle out of bass, drum machines, whimsical guitar lines, and sax, while finale “Posing for Cars” starts with a strum and ends with a grand, extended guitar solo that evokes the volumes that are often said by silence, or knowing looks. Jubilee is an arresting leap ahead for Zauner, both as a songwriter and performer. These songs are confident, expressive, and both serious and fun, and suggest even greater things to come.
The Weather Station | Ignorance (Fat Possum)
“Ignorance, Tara Lindeman’s fifth album under the Weather Station name, is filled with dips and peaks of emotions like so many stormfronts, and is consumed with the many forms of loss: love; self; the world. To name a few. It’s also her most expansive experiment yet, taking the acoustic guitar, piano, and voice that forms the backbone of her music and splattering it with a bucket’s worth of propulsive percussion, orchestration, and Moog synths.” See my full-length review at: http://theartsstl.com/the-weather-station-ignorance-fat-possum/
Steven Wilson | The Future Bites (Caroline International)
Steven Wilson’s The Future Bites is high concept but has the tunes to back it up, which keeps the whole thing flowing and from collapsing under the weight of its conceit. Here, Wilson makes some great points, exploring consumerism and self-identity in the social media age in a taut 42 minutes of art rock and prog-inflected electronica. He even throws in bits of Niles Rodgers inspired funk—that he pulls it off is a testament to the songwriting skill of such a decidedly unfunky artist. The packaging and design plays into the concept perfectly, too, imagining the album’s songs, and the artist himself, as a glossed-up, cataloged commodity. And you’ve got to love ultimate consumer Sir Elton John showing up to read the list of luxury items on the epic album centerpiece “Personal Shopper.”
Wilson has an only semi-deserved reputation of being serious and dour. But much like Rush, this is often debunked in interviews—and here, on The Future Bites, he delivers his dire warnings with a smirk and more than a bit of acknowledgment that he’s no better than the rest of us. It’s like that bit in the movie version of High Fidelity, where Rob Gordon is talking about his store and its clientele.
“I own this store called Championship Vinyl. It’s located in a neighborhood that attracts the bare minimum of window shoppers. I get by because of the people who make a special effort to shop here—mostly young men—who spend all their time looking for deleted Smiths singles and original, not rereleased—underlined—Frank Zappa albums. Fetish properties are not unlike porn. I’d feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn’t… well… kinda one of them.”
Manic Street Preachers | The Ultra Vivid Lament (Sony/Columbia)
“Manic Street Preachers can’t help looking back and within. It’s written into their DNA. When they burst onto the scene 30 years ago as “a mess of eyeliner and spraypaint,” they were steeped in the Clash, 1960s girl groups, and glam rock—even as they took up the mantle of the Futurist movement, felt like a living breathing version of the Durutti Column’s sandpaper record sleeve, and looked to a new order as they exclaimed “we destroy rock and roll.” Their fourteenth album, The Ultra Vivid Lament leans into that ingrained tendency towards introspection, documenting loss (bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire lost both of his parents in recent years) and a yearning for direction in the face of overwhelming sadness. It’s a curious album.” See my full-length review at: http://theartsstl.com/manic-street-preachers-the-ultra-vivid-lament-sony-columbia/
Lucy Dacus | Home Video (Matador)
Lucy Dacus’ stunning sophomore album Home Video looks at the memory of her burgeoning queer identity through the filter of the churches, camps, and relationships of her religious adolescence. This is an album full of things never said at the time, and only realizing what they meant when looking back on them with an adult perspective. It’s also a meditation on how the choices not made in youth forge us into the grownups we become, and how twinges of regret often commingle with a realization that you wouldn’t trade the person you became for anything.
These songs are vivid and emotionally visceral, like the rush of memory of people and emotions unearthed when you find a forgotten box of photos. Dacus has a gift for using the gothic grandeur of her arrangements and voice to make intimate, unguarded explorations of the past and the self seem inviting and universal. She does it equally well with full-band arrangements, like the rousing album opener “Hot & Heavy” and the disquieting “Thumbs,” which tells the tale of accompanying a friend (or significant other?) to meet their deadbeat dad with little more than synth pads and Dacus’s voice.
Home Video begs you to put it on repeat. Each spin becomes one of a series of long, late night conversations with someone where, in the process, you go from being acquaintances to real friends.
The Killers | Pressure Machine (Island)
“An introspective concept album about Brandon Flowers’ formative years in the small town of Nephi, Utah, it’s an honest look at people working hard to get by, struggling with the opioid epidemic and the marginalization of people who don’t fit in. Springsteen’s Nebraska is an obvious touchstone, but Pressure Machine isn’t quite as bleak, not as lo-fi; even the most inward-looking Killers album still shimmers in places. These songs are a penumbra—the place where shadows and light meet.” See my full-length review at: http://theartsstl.com/the-killers-pressure-machine-island/
Bleachers | Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night (RCA)
It’s no secret that I’m a Jack Antonoff fanboy. His enthusiasm for his passions speaks to me, as does his belief in music as a saving grace. Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night is an interesting animal. Largely eschewing the postmodern 1980s influences of the first two Bleachers albums, this record feels like an updated take on a late 1970s Springsteen album. Hell, Antonoff even got the actual Boss to guest on “Chinatown” (a successful song which maybe, probably lays it on just a little too thick). Parts of the album also makes me think of late 1970s Billy Joel, or even Joe Jackson, but shot through with synthesizers that sound like 1986. However, even a weird Bleachers album is full of small sonic details to discover, not to mention Antonoff’s earnest voice.
“91” (co-written with author Zadie Smith, the collaboration you never knew you needed) is a quiet opener, a rumination on feeling like you have one foot in each of two worlds, but fitting into neither. Its sister track, the more upbeat acoustic “45,” is all holding on to someone (and the things you value) as you navigate shared upheaval and change. That song resurrects an earlier Bleachers phrase/idea, “I’ll love your shadow”—that is, loving and accepting someone even when they’re too depressed or diminished to love themself. This is further explored on album standout—and Lana Del Rey co-write—the glistening “Don’t Go Dark.” (Which also features guest spots from Del Rey, Aaron Dessner, and The Chicks.)
I get the feeling that Antonoff’s earnestness is off-putting to some people. But I don’t think he’s speaking to those people. He’s speaking to all of us painfully earnest folks—the kinds of people who wear their hearts on their sleeves and are most at home pouring their hearts out about their favorite things to the people they love, and receiving their passions in return. Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night chooses a slightly different dialect, but continues the Bleachers tradition of speaking clearly and sincerely.
Counting Crows | Butter Miracle Suite One (BMG)
The incomprehensibly named Butter Miracle Suite One continues the latter-day renaissance Counting Crows began on 2013’s Somewhere Under Wonderland. Largely leaning on the Band-inflected sound of Counting Crows’ best work, the EP’s four songs blend together seamlessly, and are full of the evocative imagery, yearning heart, and emotional intelligence the band built their reputation on. The sleeve art, featuring a woman in a yellow dress with a slice of buttered toast for a face reclining on a bed of rubble and crystals, is something else—like a 1950s cookbook accidentally printed in the same run with a New Age catalog. It’s weird but also whimsical, and fits in with Adam Duritz’s Instagram turning into a good natured and enthusiastic cooking show during the pandemic. Plus, the B-side of the vinyl version is the band’s long lost and finally recorded version of “August and Everything After,” which appeared a few years ago as an Amazon digital exclusive. It’s wonderful to have such a beautiful song on a record finally. It also fits nicely with the new material—showing how the band has reclaimed its focus, along with its soul.
Chvrches | Screen Violence (Virgin)
Chvrches’ 2018 album Love Is Dead was a big, unsubtle stab at the pop mainstream. In courting an EDM-flavored audience, the band lost sight of the ferocity and purity of emotion that had made them so compelling. They also lost me in the process. I almost wrote off Screen Violence before I gave it a chance. Thankfully I didn’t, because it’s something you don’t always get—a return to form from an artist you thought had lost it, or that was squandering its potential. Screen Violence, a name which was once under consideration for the name of the band, is a fitting title for a record that focuses, in part, on our own relationships with the online world, and our phones. It’s doubly fitting since the album also explores misogyny, violence against women, and emotional abuse via 1980s horror movie tropes. For example, the taut “Final Girl,” which examines societal expectations of women, also works in the “final girl” film trope. (A final girl, in horror films and especially slasher movies, refers to the last girl(s) or woman alive to confront the killer, ostensibly the one left to tell the story.) The album is full of dramatic, 1980s tinged synth pop—the band’s bread and butter—but with a more expansive and modernized sound. Lauren Mayberry’s lyrics, and vocals, run a gamut of emotions, from confusion to anger and defiance. The icing on the cake is album standout “How Not to Drown,” which features and was co-written with Robert Smith. It draws a line under the late-period Cure influence found on the whole album. Screen Violence is thematically and sonically coherent, and is the wonderful sound of righting a free fall and getting back on an upward trajectory.
Lightning Bug | A Color of the Sky (Fat Possum)
Audrey King writes songs that straddle dream pop and alt. country, in the way that waking up in twilight blurs the lines between waking and dreaming. A Color of the Sky abounds with King’s hushed vocals, direct and affecting lyrics, and sounds like watching the sun come up.
Illuminati Hotties | Let Me Do One More (Snack Shack Tracks/Hopeless)
“We all contain multitudes, right? Sarah Tudzin does. Her music has an inveterate weirdness, but it’s permeated with sincerity, and even sweetness. She’s adept at writing careening pop punk that knows not to veer too far onto the hard shoulder, and at juxtaposing it with atmospheric, intimate down tempo numbers.” See my full-length review at: http://theartsstl.com/illuminati-hotties-let-me-do-one-more-snack-shack-tracks-hopeless/
The Hold Steady | Open Door Policy (Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers)
With their latest LP Open Door Policy, The Hold Steady pulls off that rare trick—hitting all the classic spots, but pushing the band forward. Where 2019’s reboot Thrashing Thru The Passion felt more like a collection of (albeit quite good) singles, Open Door Policy has an arc. “Feelers” is a proper opener, and “Hanover Camera” is a loopy weirdo that really feels like it was crafted as an album closer. And all throughout, songs flow into each other. Punchy single “Spices” flows effortlessly into my favorite track, “Lanyards,” a tale of a Midwesterner’s brief foray into the seamy, sunny SoCal underbelly. It’s told with charm, black humor, pathos, and detail like only Craig Finn can. Open Door Policy is infused with the joy of getting together with old friends, and picking right up where you left off, while not feeling like a tired photocopy of a group just going through the motions.
Kings of Convenience | Peace or Love (EMI)
“Kings of Convenience’s music is purposefully timeless. It shuts out the world, focusing on acoustic guitar, understated rhythms, skillful harmonies, and the subtle way the duo’s songs eschew verse-chorus-verse structure. This gives their music a conversational feel, and rewards the listener’s investment with a sort of recentering of the soul.” See my full-length review at: http://theartsstl.com/kings-of-convenience-peace-or-love-emi/
Wild Pink | A Billion Little Lights (Royal Mountain)
A Billion Little Lights is a fitting follow up to Wild Pink’s sophomore album, 2018’s Yolk In the Fur. John Ross’ songs radiate an earnest obliqueness, coming off something like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco crossed with the earnest heartland rock of The War On Drugs and the Flaming Lips’ pop psychedelia. The steel guitar on most of the tracks adds an extra dimension to the songs. This is an album that urges you to sit with it, and feels like springtime attempting to bloom.
Faye Webster | I Know I’m Funny haha (Secretly Canadian)
Faye Webster writes jazzy indie rock that takes itself just seriously enough. I Know I’m Funny haha is carried by Webster’s plaintive voice and subtly strong melodies. The album’s deceptively laid-back groove, which lies somewhere between torch songs and lo-fi indie folk, veils perceptive observations on relationships and getting by in young adult life.
The War On Drugs | I Don’t Live Here Anymore (Atlantic)
The War On Drugs’ fifth album doesn’t reinvent the wheel. By now, songwriter, bandleader, and frontman Adam Granduciel has perfected his trademark mix of 1980s arena rock and heartland rock. The point, and the allure, of new War On Drugs albums is the small, incremental improvements and tweaks on the formula. I Don’t Live Here Anymore is probably the most personal set of lyrics Granduciel has ever written. These songs are still anchored in big ideas (“Change”; “Victim”; “Wasted”). But there are now specific details, like going to see Bob Dylan and dancing to “Desolation Row” in the title track, and being “born in a pyramid by an old interstate” on “Old Skin.” The War On Drugs’ signature way of using repetition and slow builds to wring every drop of emotion out of a song simply sounds better than ever here. “Harmonia’s Dream” shows it off best: the synths are extra sparkly; the 4/4 drums hit harder; Granduciel’s guitars are more lyrical; the pianos have just that extra bit of sustain. The production is gloriously big, as if it was made to be on the radio in 1988. The entire album sounds like an eccentric inventor’s ultimate invention, the perfection of an ideal they’ve been working on for years.
Special late to the party award:
Hannah Georgas | All That Emotion (Arts & Crafts/Brassland)
All That Emotion, by Canadian singer-songwriter Hannah Georgas, was released in 2020, but I didn’t really spend the proper amount of time with it until 2021. It became one of my favorite albums of 2021, albeit in a timeshifted sort of way. Georgas has a knack for making small moments sound big, and big moments seem intimate. The production, by the seemingly omnipresent Aaron Dessner, amplifies Georgas’ innate gift for atmospherics. Her winsome, gentle delivery is a well-loved hoodie wrapped around some truly incisive lyrics. Think Feist, Memoryhouse, and The National hanging out around the kitchen table after everyone else has gone to bed. | Mike Rengel